Metered Internet: We Have Only Ourselves to Blame

There has been much hand wringing this week here in Canada over the decision by the CRTC that allows large network operators to charge their wholesale customers – generally smaller Internet service providers – using a “usage-based billing” model. What this means, in simple terms, is that wholesalers who’ve been paying companies like Bell Canada for unlimited access to an Internet “pipe” of a certain diameter are now going to also be billed for how much data “flows through the pipe.”

It’s a move similar to that being implemented by the City of Charlottetown’s water utility, moving residential customers from a flat-free billing, where we pay a fixed amount and can use all the water that we like, to water-meter-regulated billing, where we pay for what we use.

Much of the hand-wringing this week – take this rant by George Stroumboulopoulos – is simple-minded and makes it appear that the CRTC decision is much broader than it actually is.

But usage-based billing isn’t something new, and usage-based billing by the large networks to their retail customers is not only not new, but it’s also something that the CRTC doesn’t regulate: “The Commission notes that carriers’ retail UBB rates are market-based and are not subject to prior Commission approval – that is, they are forborne from regulation.” writes the CRTC in its decision. The decision only applies to wholesale customers, and so while consumers will be affected, it’s only consumers of smaller independent ISPs that will be affected directly.

While I’m the first to admit that using the Internet with a meter is a completely different experience than using a free and unlimited Internet – I still have visceral unpleasant memories of using dial-up when I was paying “by the minute” – I strongly believe that we have only ourselves to blame for the situation we’ve now found ourselves in.

We didn’t have to end up with an Internet controlled by a few large companies: the Internet is designed to be a cooperative, decentralized network, and if we (the people) had been more active and alert in the 1990s as our Internet access future was being plotted, we would have advocated for a cooperative, decentralized Internet – we would have built our own Internet, in other words – rather than lazily outsourcing the task to the incumbent telecommunications companies.

Where we ended up instead is with an Internet not unlike the telephone and cable television systems that preceded it, with not only the billing and the usage rules beyond our control, but the very nature of the network itself.

Back in the early 1990s, when the Internet was ours to build, those of us in the thick of it had to become versed in routers and switches and bare copper circuits and the mystical incantations of TCP/IP. Much of that knowledge has died on the vine in the intervening years, and we’re now all content to simply plug in an Ethernet cable to a port controlled by an opaque third party that handles all the messy bits.

Metered Internet isn’t good Internet, and I’m as concerned as the next guy about how this trend is going to affect how we all use the network.

But those who are protesting the CRTC’s decision, like those behind, appear to want the private-sector companies that control the network to operate on some loftier public-minded plane, and that seems completely unreasonable. Large network operators should be able to charge as much or as little as they like for their services, using whatever billing mechanism they want.  If Eastlink decides that it wants to charge me $5 more to watch a movie on streamed Netflix, why shouldn’t it be able to do that? Companies are supposed to be greedy: that’s their mandate.

The answer to this quandary lies not in regulating the private sector Internet, but rather to realize that ultimately the only way the Internet is going to be a truly revolutionary force is if we rebuild it as non-profit public infrastructure, free from market forces. There’s no technical reason that we can’t have unlimited, unmetered Internet running into every home in the country; to get there, though, we’re going to have to do it ourselves, and not gripe endlessly when private companies, well, behave like private companies.


Ken's picture
Ken on February 3, 2011 - 04:56 Permalink

The first step in building a local internet network is Meraki, I learned of these cloud devices from your blog and have enjoyed the simple configuration, reliablity and easy to use reports. How much geography can one Meraki Mesh cover? Probably all of downtown Charlottetown with several hundred units.
The next step is to build public network backbones to join these Meraki clouds together, then at that point I believe the balance of power would shift toward the publicly owned internet infrastructure and the big internet companies would have to negotiate to join this publicly owned network.
Their role would be more content oriented and less network access based.
Ownership and control of the Meraki units is democratic because the units would be owned by individuals. The backbone infrastructure to join say Charlottetown to Moncton, that is more difficult to share ownership of, maybe a coop ownership would work. I can bet that right now at both Eastlink and Bell there are dark fibers that are surplus to the current network demands and could be mandated to public access. This would be revolutionary, it would upset telco’s and lower their ISP revenues and share values.
It’s just a network and it does get simpler and easier to manage as time goes on and equipment becomes more intelligent. The big boys got there first and they want to own the network while it gets cheaper to run the terminal equipment. How do we join Meraki clouds with surplus dark fiber to build the peoples network?

Robert Paterson's picture
Robert Paterson on February 3, 2011 - 14:24 Permalink

Good point Peter and Ken — I have Meraki at home and it has worked well for me to cover my area.

The hard part as Ken points out is the long distance — can the universities play a role here/ Do they not have their own pipes?

If so then it will be possible to mesh out from Campuses and cover cities.

Then what about rural? Hard enough today with the IP’s

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on February 3, 2011 - 14:52 Permalink

When I arrived on Prince Edward Island in 1993 I was directed to UPEI to sign up for free dial-up Internet and thus became, for a few years, on the university-administered CA*Net network. The same privilege was available to any Islander with a computer, modem and phone line. It was revolutionary at the time.

Ken's picture
Ken on February 3, 2011 - 15:27 Permalink

Another point, although seemingly far fetched in Canada, is that a publicly owned internet infrastructure may not be ordered to be cut-off by the government as happened in Egypt. So an independent internet system means a voice for the people out reach of dictators or censors.
Without the pipes to join distant Meraki clouds together, there is also a question of how one could make the most of a local internet cloud. For example if some servers were local to mirror twitter, host blogs, and email. If these essential services could still operate locally when the cloud was detached from the larger internet that would be a big step that would not depend on pipes.

Governance, maintenance and maintenance are the big issues to resolve to make this robust local cloud possible.

…There comes a time in the course of human affairs when it becomes necessary to declare independence…

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on February 3, 2011 - 19:26 Permalink

I actually am running a sort of “public Internet” in my neighbourhood, using the selfsame Meraki infrastructure to which others have referred.

I took a look at my own Meraki data – one of the nice aspects of the Meraki system is that it keeps very detailed logs of usage.

In the last month:

<li>60.82 GB (51.2 GB received, 9.61 GB sent)</li>
<li>66 clients:
<li>3 Android</li>
<li>16 iPhone</li>
<li>8 iPod Touch</li>
<li>6 Mac OS X</li>
<li>1 Nokia/Symbian</li>
<li>1 Wii</li>
<li>9 Windows 7</li>
<li>9 Windows Vista</li>
<li>11 Windows XP</li>
<li>2 Xbox</li>
<li>Of the 60.83 GB of total usage, 56% was from within our household: 17.78 GB from our shared home iMac (almost all from Oliver’s web surfing, which includes a lot of video watching and bandwidth-intensive kids sites) and 16.63 GB from our Wii&#160(almost all of which would be Netflix streaming video).</li>

L's picture
L on February 3, 2011 - 23:04 Permalink

The Internet originally came about due to public funding and was originally used by non profits and educational institutions like UPEI -There was a deliberate choice made by governments at that time to develop it along the private model — there are public utility and phone systems that also exist but they were also privatized as well here on PEI and they do not serve the public interest but the airwaves and access to them should be considered public good and can be regulated in the public interest if the political will exists — our government does backflips (i.e. giving them veto power over wind projects) to please Fortis and others and I think we need to work to ensure that regulatory frameworks exist that serve public interests wherever appropriate but know that there have to be gov’ts who act in this way -we had an outcry here when Bell-Aliant did not serve rural customers very well despite promises made and Easlink who made investments but cherry-picked where they would go and make the most money — Most of these operators would ignore rural and remote Canada unless they were forced to serve them better while many for profit operators would only serve the Montreal-Toronto-Windsor corridor if they could make the most money there —  I think we need to look at ensuring a genuine mixed economy where the interests of profit only are balanced with the need to serve customers/citizens in all parts of the country and do so fairly and responsibly  — we seem to forget that we had robber barons who used child labourers in this country in the past and that way of doing business will return without expecting business to give something back in return for being able to do business and benefit from public infrastructure -I recommend reading Linda McQuag and Neil Brooks new book “The Trouble With Billionaires” -many large corporations do not even pay their fair share of taxes

Maggie's picture
Maggie on June 11, 2011 - 03:38 Permalink

Good points, but you forgot how tax dollars actually went into building some of the infostrcuture for these big companies. I know that PEIslanders paid for a good chunk of Bell/Alient’s new fiber optic project, but don’t forget that Eastlink didn’t go without support from the government as well. And don’t think that Bell/Alient will stay metre free for long if Eastlink is making the switch. Bell already metres usage west of the maritimes. ( I see I’m not the only one with this point!)